Boss effects pedals is the Ford Motor Company of the musical world. The Ford Focus is a great car, the Escape is incredibly popular, and the F-150 is an American institution. Yet on Car magazine covers and wall posters it’s the Ferrari’s, Lamborghini’s and Porches’ that get all the love. The same is true with Boss pedals. The RV-5 is a iconic reverb sound found on records from all across the musical spectrum, yet Strymon get’s all the love. What’s the difference between Boss vs boutique pedals and how should affect how I spend my gear money?
WHAT IS BOSS?
Boss pedals are emblematic for all the other mass-produced builders out there. Boss, MXR, Ibanez, Electro-Harmonix are all, generally speaking, different sides of the same coin. In some cases, like the Boss OD-1 or the MXR Dyna Comp, they were the first to do a certain thing and almost every pedal in that style traces their DNA back to those basic circuits. Or, in the case of companies like EHX, they weren’t the first, but they were the first to streamline the process or get the pedals out to the masses in the case of Fuzz pedals, analog delay or modulation, etc.
WHAT IS BOUTIQUE?
In the 80’s and 90’s, Boss and the rest of the mass produced pedals were pretty much all we had. There were a few other options, but for the most part you had to be in the know to know about Fulltone, Analogman and the handful of other builders to have any of their stuff.
A couple of things happened at the same time that changed all that. First, was that a lot of touring musicians in the late 90’s and early 2000’s started messing around with the pedals they had on hand. Sometimes it was just to see how they worked, other times it was because they had stopped working and they couldn’t afford a new one. Eventually, they started seeing little things they could improve on or parts that could be upgraded, and started doing these mods for friends, which led to them starting a business.
Around the same time, the internet happened which made it possible for the average guitar player to find these boutique builders. Before, the only way you would know about a product was if it was featured in a Musicians Friend catalog, or you knew someone who knew someone. But with the rise of the internet and forums like Harmony Central and The Gear Page (for me it was TDPRI), along with YouTube, you started to hear names like Keeley, Analogman, Wampler, JHS, and others.
Today, boutique is an overused word. I would define boutique as small batch shops, whereas most “boutique” builders are really just “high end” companies that employ several pedal and have a large distribution.
WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?
The difference between “Boss” and “Boutique” is often summed up by: parts, features, and customer service.
Parts and components are what got a lot of boutique builders in the game. Replacing cheap or low quality parts or fixing corners that had been cut to increase MXR or Ibanez’s profit margin. For example, one of the big complaints about the Line 6 DL4 delay is the low build quality, especially in regards to the foot switches. The Boss EQ pedal has some quality issues because they used cheap capacitors, which create noise and affect tone. Boutique builders either offer modification services to fix this (CMat Mods, Analogman, JHS, etc) or they’ve created their own take on the pedal that solves these problem.
Features is the thing that often moved a pedal ‘mod-er’ to becoming a pedal builder. What’s the difference between an MXR Dynacomp and the Walrus Audio Deep Six? Parts and components to be sure, but that only takes you so far. The sustain controls and blend knob on the Deep Six truly separate it from the classic Dynacomp to become it’s own thing. The same is true with the JHS Moonshine, which is a tube screamer style overdrive. What’s the difference? Features. High and low gain toggle switch, internal charge pump taking it from 9 to 18v, etc are all features that I would never find on a mass produced version of the same circuit.
Finally, there is customer service. Analogman, Matthews Effects, JHS, Keeley, Wampler, ChaseBliss, they have all been super cool to me. Answering questions about pedals that they know I bought used instead of directly from them (which doesn’t help them out any) or covering repair work no questions asked. If your Boss pedal goes on the fritz then congratulations on having to buy a new Boss pedal. Recently I had two pedals from two different boutique companies that started having issues. Contacted both builders and they didn’t even hesitate to say “send it in” or “here’s how we can fix this.” Good luck getting that from Ibanez.
WHAT’S THE BOTTOM LINE?
First of all, I love Boss. I could easily run a whole board off Boss pedals and not be sad. But like any major corporation, they are trying to market products to the broadest audience possible. They would never make a pedal like the Caroline Guitar Co Kilobyte or Wave Cannon (two of my all time favorites) or the do the amazing stuff that Joel is doing mixing analog and digital over at ChaseBliss Audio. But if you put a DD7, RV5, RE20 or some other Boss pedal on your rig and you’ve got a workhorse at your feet. I don’t see anything weird or wrong with running an Endangered Audio Ad4096 delay (probably the most boutique pedal I’ve ever owned) into a Boss delay. They both sound great.
I go with the major brands for a couple of reasons. 1st, if the pedal is great on it’s own merits like an Ibanez AD9, or a Boss Tu-2, then I’ll put it on my rig if I need it. Or, if there’s a solid pedal in a type that’s more of a luxury than a must have, I’ll consider it too. An example of this is the MXR micro flanger I have on my board. I wanted to mess with a flanger, but it’s not core or essential to my sound, and I picked one up for cheap.
So if you were avoiding Boss, MXR, Ibanez or others because they aren’t cool, I would advise you to reconsider. They are solid, classic and more than adequate.
On the flip side, if you haven’t explored the world or boutique and high-end pedal builders, I’d encourage you to the check them out. You might find that pedal that gives you a whole new space to explore sonically.
Any good stories or experiences with this topic? Leave a comment below.